The blogger as starmaker

Never mind the inventors -- Andrea's posts make things happen. Chapter 6 of "Themepunks."

Published October 17, 2005 11:00AM (EDT)

Tjan took Andrea through the spreadsheets. "There are ten teams that do closet-organizing in the network, and a bunch of shippers, packers, movers and storage experts. A few furniture companies. We adopted the interface from some free software inventory-management apps that were built for illiterate service employees. Lots of big pictures and autocompletion. And we've bought a hundred RFID printers from a company that was so grateful for a new customer than they're shipping us 150 of them, so we can print these things at about a million per hour. The plan is to start our sales through the consultants at the same time as we start showing at trade-shows for furniture companies. We've already got a huge order from a couple of local old-folks' homes."

They walked to the IHOP to have a celebratory lunch. Being back in Florida felt just right to Andrea. Francis, the leader of the paramilitary wing of the AARP, threw them a salute and blew her a kiss, and even Lester's nursing junkie friend seemed to be in a good mood.

When they were done, they brought take-out bags for the junkie and Francis in the shantytown.

"I want to make some technology for those guys," Perry said, as they sat in front of Francis's RV drinking cowboy coffee cooked over a banked wood-stove off to one side. "Roommate ware for homeless people."

Francis uncrossed his bony ankles and scratched at his mosquito bites. "A lot of people think that we don't buy stuff, but it's not true," he said. "I shop hard for bargains, but there's lots of stuff I spend more on because of my lifestyle than I would if I had a real house and steady electricity. When I had a chest-freezer, I could bulk buy ground round for about a tenth of what I pay now when I go to the grocery store and get enough for one night's dinner. The alternative is using propane to keep the fridge going overnight, and that's not cheap, either. So I'm a kind of premium customer. Back at Boeing, we loved the people who made small orders because we could charge them such a premium for custom work, while the big airlines wanted stuff done so cheap that half the time we lost money on the deal."

Perry nodded. "There you have it -- roommate ware for homeless people, a great and untapped market."

Andrea cocked her head and looked at him. "You're sounding awfully commerce-oriented for a pure and unsullied engineer, you know?"

He ducked his head and grinned and looked about twelve years old. "It's infectious. Those little kitchen gnomes, we sold nearly a half-million of those things, not to mention all the spin-offs. That's a half-million lives -- a half-million households -- that we changed just by thinking up something cool and making it real. These RFID things of Lester's -- we'll sign a couple million customers with those. People will change everything about how they live from moment to moment because of something Lester thought up in my junkyard over there."

"Well, there's thirty million of us living in what the social workers call 'marginal housing,'" Francis said, grinning wryly. He had a funny smile that Andrea had found adorable until he explained that he had an untreated dental abscess that he couldn't afford to get fixed. "So that's a lot of difference you could make."

"Yeah," Perry said. "Yeah, it sure is."

That night, she found herself still blogging and answering e-mails -- they always piled up when she traveled and took a couple of late nights to clear out -- after nine p.m., sitting alone in a pool of light in the back corner of Lester's workshop that she had staked out as her office. She yawned and stretched and listened to her old back crackle. She hated feeling old, and late nights made her feel old -- feel every extra ounce of fat on her tummy, feel the lines bracketing her mouth and the little bag of skin under her chin.

She stood up and pulled on a light jacket and began to switch off lights and get ready to head home. As she poked her head in Tjan's office, she saw that she wasn't the only one working late.

"Hey, you," she said. "Isn't it time you got going?"

He jumped like he'd been stuck with a pin and gave a little yelp. "Sorry," he said, "didn't hear you."

He had a cardboard box on his desk and had been filling it with his personal effects -- little one-off inventions the guys had made for him, personal fetishes and tchotchkes, a framed picture of his kids.

"What's up?"

He sighed and cracked his knuckles. "Might as well tell you now as tomorrow morning. I'm resigning."

She felt a flash of anger and then forced it down and forcibly replaced it with professional distance and curiosity. Mentally she licked her pencil-tip and flipped to a blank page in her reporter's notebook.

"Oh yes?"

"I've had another offer, in Westchester County. Westinghouse has spun out its own version of Kodacell and they're looking for a new vice-president to run the division. That's me."

"Good job," she said. "Congratulations, Mr. Vice-President."

He shook his head. "I e-mailed Kettlewell half an hour ago. I'm leaving in the morning. I'm going to say goodbye to the guys over breakfast."

"Not much notice," she said.

"Nope," he said, a note of anger creeping into his voice. "My contract lets Kodacell fire me on one day's notice, so I insisted on the right to quit on the same terms. Maybe Kettlewell will get his lawyers to write better boilerplate from here on in."

When she had an angry interview, she habitually changed the subject to something sensitive: angry people often say more than they intend to. She did it instinctively, not really meaning to psy-ops Tjan, whom she thought of as a friend, but not letting that get in the way of the story. "Westinghouse is doing what, exactly?"

"It'll be as big as Kodacell's operation in a year," he said. "George Westinghouse personally funded Tesla's research, you know. The company understands funding individual entrepreneurs. I'm going to be training the talent scouts and mentoring the financial people, then turning them loose to sign up entrepreneurs for the Westinghouse network. There's a competitive market for garage inventors now." He laughed. "Go ahead and print that," he said. "Blog it tonight. There's competition now. We're giving two points more equity and charging half a point less on equity than the Kodacell network."

"That's amazing, Tjan. I hope you'll keep in touch with me -- I'd love to follow your story."

"Count on it," he said. He laughed. "I'm getting a week off every eight weeks to scout Russia. They've got an incredible culture of entrepreneurship."

"Plus you'll get to see your kids," Andrea said. "That's really good."

"Plus, I'll get to see my kids," he admitted.

"How much money is Westinghouse putting into the project?" she asked, replacing her notional notebook with a real one, pulled from her purse.

"I don't have numbers, but they've shut down the whole appliances division to clear the budget for it." She nodded -- she'd seen news of the layoffs on the wires. Mass demonstrations, people out of work after twenty years' service. "So it's a big budget."

"They must have been impressed with the quarterlies from Kodacell."

Tjan folded down the flaps on his box and drummed his fingers on it, squinting at her. "You're joking, right?"

"What do you mean?"

"Andrea, they were impressed by you. Everyone knows that quarterly numbers are easy to cook -- anything less than two annual reports is as likely to be enronning as real fortune-making. But your dispatches from here -- they're what sold them. It's what's convincing everyone. Kettlewell said that three quarters of his new recruits come on board after reading your descriptions of this place. That's how I ended up here."

She shook her head. "That's very flattering, Tjan, but--"

He waved her off and then, surprisingly, came around the desk and hugged her. "But nothing, Andrea. Kettlewell, Lester, Perry -- they're all basically big kids. Full of enthusiasm and invention, but they've got the emotional maturity and sense of scale of a hyperactive five-year-old. You and me, we're grownups. People take us seriously. It's easy to get a kid excited, but when a grownup chimes in you know there's some there there."

Andrea recovered herself after a second and put away her notepad. "I'm just the person who writes it all down. You people are making it happen."

"In ten years time, they'll remember you and not us," Tjan said. "You should get Kettlewell to put you on the payroll."

Kettlewell himself turned up the next day. Andrea had developed an intuitive sense of the flight-times from the West Coast and so for a second she couldn't figure out how he could possibly be standing there -- nothing in the sky could get him from San Jose to Miami for a seven a.m. arrival.

"Private jet," he said, and had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. "Kodak had eight of them and Duracell had five. We've been trying to sell them all off but no one wants a used jet these days, not even Saudi princes or Colombian drug-lords."

"So, basically, it was going to waste."

He smiled and looked eighteen -- she really did feel like the only grownup sometimes -- and said, "Zackly -- it's practically environmental. Where's Tjan?"

"Downstairs saying goodbye to the guys, I think."

"OK," he said. "Are you coming?"

She grabbed her notebook and a pen and beat him out the door of her rented condo.

"What's this all about," Tjan said, looking wary. The guys were hang-dog and curious looking, slightly in awe of Kettlewell, who did little to put them at their ease -- he was staring intensely at Tjan.

"Exit interview," he said. "Company policy."

Tjan rolled his eyes. "Come on," he said. "I've got a flight to catch in an hour."

"I could give you a lift," Kettlewell said.

"You want to do the exit interview between here and the airport?"

"I could give you a lift to JFK. I've got the jet warmed up and waiting."

Sometimes, Andrea managed to forget that Kodacell was a multi-billion-dollar operation and that Kettlewell was at its helm, but other times the point was very clear.

"Come on," he said, "we'll make a day of it. We can stop on the way and pick up some barbecue to eat on the plane. I'll even let you keep your seat in the reclining position during take-off and landing. Hell, you can turn your cellphone on -- just don't tell the Transportation Security Agency!"

Tjan looked cornered, then resigned. "Sounds good to me," he said, and Kettlewell shouldered one of the two huge duffel-bags that were sitting by the door.

"Hi, Kettlewell," Perry said.

Kettlewell set down the duffel. "Sorry, sorry. Lester, Perry, it's really good to see you. I'll bring Andrea back tonight and we'll all go out for dinner, OK?"

Andrea blinked. "I'm coming along?"

"I sure hope so," Kettlewell said.

Perry and Lester accompanied them down in the elevator.

"Private jet, huh?" Perry said. "Never been in one of those."

Kettlewell told them about his adventures trying to sell off Kodacell's private air force.

"Send one of them our way, then," Lester said.

"Do you fly?" Kettlewell said.

"No," Perry said. "Lester wants to take it apart. Right, Les?"

Lester nodded. "Lots of cool junk in a private jet."

"These things are worth millions, guys," Kettlewell said.

"No, someone paid millions for them," Perry said. "They're worth whatever you can sell them for."

Kettlewell laughed. "You've had an influence around here, Tjan," he said. Tjan managed a small, tight smile.

Kettlewell had a driver waiting outside of the building who loaded the duffels into the spacious trunk of a spotless dark town-car whose doors chunked shut with an expensive sound.

"I want you to know that I'm really not angry at all, OK?"

Tjan nodded again. He had the look of a man who was steeling himself for a turn in an interrogation chamber. He'd barely said a word since Kettlewell arrived. For his part, Kettlewell appeared oblivious to all of this, though Andrea was pretty sure that he understood exactly how uncomfortable this was making Tjan.

"The thing is, six months ago, nearly everyone was convinced that I was a fucking moron, that I was about to piss away ten billion dollars of other people's money away on a stupid doomed idea. Now they're copying me and poaching my best people. So this is good news for me, though I'm going to have to find a new business manager for those two before they get picked up for turning planes into component pieces."

Andrea's PDA vibrated whenever the number of news stories appearing online mentioning her or Kodacell or Kettlewell increased or decreased sharply. She used to try to read everything, but it was impossible to keep up -- now all she wanted was to keep track of whether the interestingness-index was on the uptick or downtick.

It had started to buzz that morning and the pitch had increased steadily until it was actually uncomfortable in her pocket. Irritated, she yanked it out and was about to switch it off when the lead article caught her eye.


The byline was rat-toothed Freddy. Feeling like a character in a horror movie who can't resist the compulsion to look under the bed, Andrea thumbed the PDA's wheel and brought up the whole article.

Kodacell business-manager Tjan Lee Tang, whose adventures we've followed through Andrea Fleeks's gushing, besotted "blog" posts...

She looked away and reflexively reached toward the delete button. The innuendo that she was romantically involved with one or more of the guys had circulated on her blog's message boards and around the slashdots ever since she'd started writing about them. No woman could possibly be writing about this stuff because it was important -- she had to be "with the band," a groupie or a whore.

Combine that with Rat-Toothed Freddy's insistence of putting blog in quote-marks and she was instantly sent into heart-thundering rage. She deleted the post and looked out the window. Her pager buzzed some more and she looked down. The same article, being picked up on blogs, on some of the bigger slashdots, and an AP wire.

She forced herself to re-open it.

has been hired to head up a new business unit on behalf of the multinational giant Westinghouse. The appointment stands as more proof of Fleeks's power to cloud men's minds with pretty empty words about the half-baked dot-com schemes that have oozed out of Silicon Valley and into every empty and dead American suburb.

It was hypnotic, like staring into the eyes of a serpent. Her pulse actually thudded in her ears for a second before she took a few deep breaths and calmed down enough to finish the article, which was just more of the same: nasty personal attacks, sniping, and innuendo. Rat-Toothed Freddy even managed to imply that she was screwing all of them -- and Kettlewell besides.

Kettlewell leaned over her shoulder and read.

"You should send him an e-mail," he said. "That's disgusting. That's not reportage."

"Never get into a pissing match with a skunk," she said. "What Freddy wants is for me to send him mail that he can publish along with more snarky commentary. When the guy you're arguing with controls the venue you're arguing in, you can't possibly win."

"So blog him," Kettlewell said. "Correct the record."

"The record is correct," she said. "It's never been incorrect. I've written an exhaustive record that is there for everyone to see. If people believe this, no amount of correction will help."

Kettlewell made a face like a little boy who'd been told he couldn't have a toy. "That guy is poison," he said. "Those quote-marks around blog."

"Let him add his quote-marks," she said. "My daily readership is higher than the Merc's paid circulation this week." It was true. After a short uphill climb from her new URL, she'd accumulated enough readers that the advertising revenue was starting to approach her old salary at the Merc, an astonishing happenstance that nevertheless kept her bank-account full. She clicked a little. "Besides, look at this, there are three dozen links pointing at this story so far and all of them are critical of him. We don't need to stick up for ourselves -- the world will."

Saying it calmed her and now they were at the airport. They cruised into a private gate, away from the militarized gulag that fronted Miami International. A courteous security guard waved them through and the driver confidently piloted the car up to a wheeled jetway beside a cute, stubby little toy jet. On the side, in cursive script, was the plane's name: ANDREA.

She looked accusatorially at Kettlewell.

"It was called that when I bought the company," he said, expressionless but somehow mirthful behind his curved surfer shades. "But I kept it because I liked the private joke."

"Just no one tell Freddy that you've got an airplane with my name on it or we'll never hear the fucking end of it."

She covered her mouth, regretting her language, and Kettlewell laughed, and so did Tjan, and somehow the ice was broken between them.

"No way flying this thing is cost-effective," Tjan said. "Your CFO should be kicking your ass."

"It's a little indulgence," Kettlewell said, bounding up the steps and shaking hands with a small, neat woman pilot, an African-American with corn-rows peeking out under her smart peaked cap. "Once you've flown in your own bird, you never go back."

"This is a monstrosity," Tjan said as he boarded. "What this thing eats up in hangar fees alone would be enough to bankroll three or four teams." He settled into an oversized Barcalounger of a seat and accepted a glass of orange juice that the pilot poured for him. "Thank you, and no offense."

"None taken," she said. "I agree one hundred percent."

"See," Tjan said.

Andrea took her own seat and her own glass and buckled in and watched the two of them, warming up for the main event, realizing that she'd been brought along as a kind of opening act.

"They paying you more?"

"Yup," Tjan said. "All on the back-end. Half a point on every dollar brought in by a team I coach or whose members I mentor."

Kettlewell whistled. "That's a big share," he said.

"If I can make my numbers, I'll take home a million this year."

"You'll make those numbers. Good negotiations. Why didn't you ask us for the same deal?"

"Would you have given it to me?"

"You're a star," Kettlewell said, nodding at Andrea, whose invisibility to the conversation popped like a bubble. "Thanks to her."

"Thanks, Andrea," Tjan said.

Andrea blushed. "Come on, guys."

Tjan shook his head. "She doesn't really understand. It's actually kind of charming."

"We might have matched the offer."

"You guys are first to market. You've got a lot of procedures in place. I wanted to reinvent some wheels."

"We're too conservative for you?"

Tjan grinned wickedly. "Oh yes," he said. "I'm going to do business in Russia."

Kettlewell grunted and pounded his orange juice. Around them, the jet's windows flashed white as they broke through the clouds and the ten thousand foot bell sounded.

"How the hell are you going to make anything that doesn't collapse under its own weight in Russia?"

"The corruption's a problem, sure," Tjan said. "But it's offset by the entrepreneurship. Some of those cats make the Chinese look lazy and unimaginative. It's a shame that so much of their efforts have been centered on graft, but there's no reason they couldn't be focused on making an honest ruble."

They fell into a discussion of the minutiae of Perry and Lester's businesses, franker than any business discussion she'd ever heard. Tjan talked about the places where they'd screwed up, and places where they'd scored big, and about all the plans he'd made for Westinghouse, the connections he had in Russia. He even talked about his kids and his ex in St Petersburg, and Kettlewell admitted that he'd known about them already.

For Kettlewell's part, he opened the proverbial kimono wide, telling Tjan about conflicts within the Board of Directors, poisonous holdovers from the pre-Kodacell days who sabotaged the company from within with petty bureaucracy, even the problems he was having with his family over the long hours they were working. He opened the minibar and cracked a bottle of champagne to toast Tjan's new job, and they mixed it with more orange juice, and then there were bagels and schmear, fresh fruit, power bars, and canned Starbucks coffees with deadly amounts of sugar and caffeine.

When Kettlewell disappeared into the tiny -- but marble-appointed -- bathroom, Andrea found herself sitting alone with Tjan, almost knee to knee, lightheaded from lack of sleep and champagne and altitude.

"Some trip," she said.

"You're the best," he said, wobbling a little. "You know that? Just the best. The stuff you write about these guys, it makes me want to stand up and salute. You make us all seem so fucking glorious. We're going to end up taking over the world because you inspire us so. Maybe I shouldn't tell you this, because you're not very self-conscious about it right now, but Andrea, you won't believe it because you're so goddamned modest, too. It's what makes your writing so right, so believable--"

Kettlewell stepped out of the bathroom. "Touching down soon," he said, and patted them each on the shoulder as he took his seat. "So that's about it, then," he said, and leaned back and closed his eyes. Andrea was accustomed to thinking of him as twenty-something, the boyish age of the magazine cover portraits from the start of his career. Now, eyes closed on his private jet, harsh upper atmosphere sun painting his face, his crow's-feet and the deep vertical brackets around his mouth revealed him for someone pushing a youthful forty, kept young by exercise and the animation of his ideas.

"Guess so," Tjan said, slumping too. "This has been one of the memorable experiences of my life, Kettlewell, Andrea. Not entirely pleasant, but pleasant on the whole. A magical time in the clouds."

"Once you've flown private, you'll never go back to coach," Kettlewell said, smiling, eyes still closed. "You still think my CFO should spank me for not selling this thing?"

"No," Tjan said. "In ten years, if we do our jobs, there won't be five companies on earth that can afford this kind of thing -- it'll be like building a cathedral after the Protestant Reformation. While we have the chance, we should keep these things in the sky. But you should give one to Lester and Perry to take apart."

"I was planning to," Kettlewell said. "Thanks."

They didn't get off the plane and Tjan didn't look back when they'd landed at JFK. "Should we go into town and get some bialy to bring back to Miami?" Kettlewell said, squinting at the bright day on the tarmac.

"Bring deli to Miami?"

"Right, right," he said. "Forget I asked. Besides, we'd have to charter a chopper to get into Manhattan and back without dying in traffic."

Something about the light through the open hatch or the sound or the smell -- something indefinably New York -- made her yearn for Miami. The great cities of commerce like New York and San Francisco seemed too real for her, while the suburbs of Florida were a kind of endless summer camp, a dreamtime where anything was possible.

"Let's go," she said. The champagne buzz had crashed and she had a touch of headache. "I'm bushed."

"Me too," Kettlewell said. "I left San Jose last night to get into Miami before Tjan left. Not much sleep. Gonna put my seat back and catch some winks, if that's OK?"

"Good plan," Andrea said.

Embarrassingly, when their seats were fully reclined, they nearly touched, forming something like a double bed. Andrea lay awake in the hum of the jets for a while, conscious of the breathing human beside her, the first man she'd done anything like share a bed with in at least a year. The last thing she remembered was the ten thousand foot bell going off and then she slipped away into sleep.

Perry thought that they'd sell a million Home Awares in six months. Lester thought he was nuts, that number was too high.

"Please," he said, "I invented these things but there aren't a million roommate households in all of America. We'll sell half a million tops, total."

Lester always complained when she quoted him directly in her blog posts, but she thought he secretly enjoyed it.

Today the boys shipped their millionth unit. It took six weeks.

They'd uncorked a bottle of champagne when unit one million shipped. They hadn't actually shipped it, per se. The manufacturing was spread out across forty different teams all across the country, even a couple of Canadian teams. The RFID printer company had re-hired half the workers they'd laid off the year before, and had them all working overtime to meet demand.

What's exciting about this isn't just the money that these guys have made off of it, or the money that Kodacell will return to its shareholders, it's the ecosystem that these things have enabled. There're at least ten competing commercial systems for organizing, tagging, sharing, and describing Home Aware objects. Parents love them for their kids. School teachers love them. Seniors' homes.

The seniors' homes had been Francis's idea. They'd brought him in to oversee some of the production engineering, along with some of the young bucks who ran around the squatter camps. Francis knew which ones were biddable and he kept them to heel. In the evenings, he'd join the guys and Andrea up on the roof of the workshop on folding chairs, with beers, watching the sweaty sunset.

They're not the sole supplier. That's what an ecosystem is all about, creating value for a lot of players. All this competition is great news for you and me, because it's already driven the price of Home Aware goods down by forty percent. That means that Lester and Perry are going to have to invent something new, soon, before the margin disappears altogether -- and that's also good news for you and me.

"Are you coming?" Lester had dated a girl for a while, someone he met on craigslist, but she'd dumped him and Perry had confided that she'd left him because he didn't live up to the press he'd gotten in Andrea's column. When he got dumped, he became even touchier about Andrea, caught at a distance from her that was defined by equal parts of desire and resentment.

"Up in a minute," she said, trying to keep her smile light and noncommittal. Lester was very nice, but there were times when she caught him staring at her like a kicked puppy and it made her uncomfortable. Naturally, this increased his discomfort as well.

On the roof they already had a cooler of beers going and beside it a huge plastic tub of brightly colored machine-parts.

"Jet engine," Perry said. The months had put a couple pounds on him and new wrinkles, and given him some grey at the temples, and laugh lines inside his laugh lines. Perry was always laughing at everything around them ("They fucking pay me to do this," he'd told her once, before literally collapsing to the floor, rolling with uncontrollable hysteria). He laughed again.

"Good old Kettlebelly," she said. "Must have broken his heart."

Francis held up a curved piece of cowling. "This thing wasn't going to last anyway. See the distortion here and here? This thing was designed in a virtual wind-tunnel and machine-lathed. We tried that a couple times, but the wind-tunnel sims were never detailed enough and the forms that flew well in the machine always died a premature death in the sky. Another two years and he'd have had to have it rebuilt anyway, and the Koreans who built this charge shitloads for parts."

"Too bad," Lester said. "It's pretty. Gorgeous, even." He mimed its curve in the air with a pudgy hand, that elegant swoop.

"Aerospace loves the virtual wind-tunnel," Francis said, and glared at the cowling. "You can use evolutionary algorithms in the sim and come up with really efficient designs, in theory. And computers are cheaper than engineers."

"Is that why you were laid off?" Andrea said.

"I wasn't laid off, girl," he said. He jiggled his lame foot. "I retired at 65 and was all set up but the pension plan went bust. So I missed a month of medical and they cut me off and I ended up uninsured. When the wife took sick, bam, that was it, wiped right out. But I'm not bitter -- why should be poor be allowed to live, huh?"

His acolytes, three teenagers in do-rags from the shantytown, laughed and went on to pitching bottle-caps off the edge of the roof.

"Stop that, now," he said, "you're getting the junkyard all dirty. Christ, you'd think that they grew up in some kind of zoo." When Francis drank, he got a little mean, a little dark.

"So, kids," Perry said, wandering over to them, hands in pockets. Silhouetted against the setting sun, biceps bulging, muscular chest tapering to his narrow hips, he looked like a Greek statue. "What do you think of the stuff we're building?"

They looked at their toes. "'S OK," one of them grunted.

"Answer the man," Francis snapped. "Complete sentences, looking up and at him, like you've got a shred of self-respect. Christ, what are you, five years old?"

They shifted uncomfortably. "It's fine," one of them said.

"Would you use it at home?"

One of them snorted. "No, man. My dad steals anything nice we get and sells it."

"Oh," Perry said.

"Fucker broke in the other night and I caught him with my walkman. Nearly took his fucking head off with my cannon before I saw who it was. Fucking juice-head."

"You should have fucked him up," one of the other kids said. "My ma pushed my pops in front of a bus one day to get rid of him, guy broke both his legs and never came back."

Andrea knew it was meant to shock them, but that didn't take away from its shockingness. In the warm fog of writing and living in Florida, it was easy to forget that these people lived in a squatter camp and were technically criminals, and received no protection from the law.

Perry, though, just squinted into the sun and nodded. "Have you ever tried burglar alarms?"

The kids laughed derisively and Andrea winced, but Perry was undaunted. "You could be sure that you woke up whenever anyone entered, set up a light and siren to scare them off."

"I want one that fires spears," the one with the juice-head father said.

"Blowtorches," said the one whose mother pushed his father under a bus.

"I want a force-field," the third one said, speaking for the first time. "I want something that will keep anyone from coming in, period, so I don't have to sleep one eye up, 'cause I'll be safe."

The other two nodded, slowly.

"Damn straight," Francis said.

That was the last time Francis's acolytes joined them on the rooftop. Instead, when they finished work they went home, walking slowly and talking in low murmurs. With just the grownups on the roof, it was a lot more subdued.

"What's that smoke?" Lester said, pointing at the black billowing column off to the west, in the sunset's glare.

"House-fire," Francis said. "Has to be. Or a big fucking car-wreck, maybe."

Perry ran down the stairs and came back up with a pair of high-power binox. "Francis, that's your place," he said after a second's fiddling. He handed the binox to Francis. "Just hit the button and they'll self-stabilize."

"That's my place," Francis said. "Oh, Christ." He'd gone gray and seemed to have sobered up instantly. His lips were wet, his eyes bright.

Read Chapter 7.

By Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow ( is the author of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town" and other novels, including "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom." His latest short story collection is "Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present." He is the co-editor of Boing Boing (

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